This year, fans across the world celebrate the 33rd anniversary of Fairport Convention's 1969 masterpiece, Liege and Lief, a recently reissued album that many credit as a landmark of the British folk-rock boom. The record was the first full-on collision between the jangly psychedelic rock coursing across the Atlantic and the centuries-old canon of British traditional ballads. Holed up in an English country home, the Fairporters -- whose lineup included the incandescent folk vocalist Sandy Denny and songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson -- pored through hundreds of arcane English and Scottish songs compiled in the 19th century by American scholar Francis James Child, before they finally settled on a short program of music that would change the course of the UK rock scene. Among the verses that Denny regally intoned was an ancient murder ballad, "Matty Groves," whose grisly, sinister lyrics became a beloved, singalong favorite of the band's most devoted fans. Liege and Lief was certainly not the first time the Child ballads had been mined for material; countless sterner, four-square folkies had drawn on the near-inexhaustible anthology, including traditionalists such as Martin Carthy and Shirley Collins. But Fairport was the first band to present these old songs in loud, electrified arrangements, including clompy, fuzzed-out instrumental jigs and reels that set the tone for the elves-in-the-woods folk-prog explorations of the '70s. Fairport's passage into folk-scene authenticity came courtesy of fiddler Dave Swarbrick, a veteran player who later became the group's central member, as Denny and Thompson launched solo careers, and bassist Ashley Hutchings went on to found competing acts such as Steeleye Span and the Albion Band.
Fairport's legendary and seemingly endless cycles of implosion and renewal are elaborately documented in a new four-CD box set compiled by the tiny independent Free Reed label. UnConventioNal is a Brit-folk true-believer's holy grail, collecting dozens of rarities, including live versions of classic songs and numerous unreleased demos, recorded over a 35-year period. The band's remarkable range swiftly becomes apparent as the sets glide between clangorous San Francisco-y acid rock jams and more stately, subtle acoustic ballads. The sound quality on the box is pretty variable -- many of these songs were taken from rough recordings taped from various European TV and radio programs, performances that otherwise have gone unarchived, while other tracks sound beautifully clear -- but the chance to hear such striking music from all the different Fairport incarnations, and to marvel at the band's versatility and continuing vigor, is worth the inconvenience. Along with the music, the unConventioNal box includes a gigantic and charmingly insider-ish booklet documenting each stage of the band's career, detailing its repertoire and creative growth, and a lavish, hand-drawn "family tree" poster that outlines Fairport's almost absurd influence on the '70s rock scene. Hard-core fans and newcomers alike will find either of these albums both a delight and a revelation.
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